A group of Mercer Island residents has pushed to press pause on their city’s Town Center development.
A certain pressure has been mounting on Mercer Island as the skylines of the two booming neighbors, Seattle and Bellevue, grow taller and light-rail construction draws closer.
Add more housing, more parking and more retail to the city’s Town Center.
It’s coming from developers, Sound Transit and City Council members who want to concentrate the city’s growth near an East Link station set to open in 2023.
That pressure was met with resistance this winter by Save Our Suburbs (SOS), a vocal group of at least 270 Mercer Island residents who have, since December, packed enough public meetings to urge the City Council to approve a temporary building moratorium in its Town Center district and turn down Sound Transit’s $6.3 million offer to build more park-and-ride space near the future light-rail station.
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Island resident Tom Acker, who started the group, wants to make sure Mercer Island can maintain a “village” type feel in its Town Center while avoiding traffic congestion and tall apartment buildings stacked so close to each other that they create the kind of unsightly “urban canyons” he already sees popping up.
“Growth is going to happen — it’s inevitable. But it doesn’t mean you have to spoil an existing community,” Acker said.
“People have moved here for a certain quality of life that they value and want to preserve.”
City Council members who have wanted to concentrate the island’s growth in the city’s Town Center have expressed concern that the group’s urgency to block building permits for anything over two stories high could drive out projects that are already in the works.
Among them are the Hines project, an at least four-story, mixed-use building that would include at least 150 residential units and retail that may include a high-end grocery story such as Whole Foods below.
Many SOS members pressured the City Council to approve a six-month building-permit moratorium earlier this month while hoping to block permit approval for the Hines project, but the City Council voted to make an exception for the development in an approved four-month moratorium.
Mercer Island Mayor Bruce Bassett said he’s in no rush to see the city’s population jump because, he says, they’re already five years ahead of Growth Management Act goals that have made it necessary to add at least 80 residential units a year through 2030. According to the city’s last comprehensive plan, the city of about 24,000 people is expected to rise to 26,000 by 2020.
That’s a big jump for a city with a population that has stayed relatively steady for decades. Census data show that between 1980 and 2010, the population ranged from approximately 20,000 to 22,000 residents.
It’s a change Acker and other SOS members are afraid the city hasn’t thoroughly planned for.
“Our infrastructure and our roads aren’t ready for all this growth,” Acker said.
“Last year we had a huge contamination issue in our water pipes, and we’re building a new school because our district is getting overcrowded.”
Sound Transit documents show that it’s been counting on Mercer Island to add more density to its Town Center to increase East Link ridership, but not too much. A daily average of about 2,000 people are eventually expected to board light rail on Mercer Island, said Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray.
Those boardings could include Mercer Island residents and others who use the island’s 447-space park-and-ride, as well as commuters who would transfer onto light rail from buses.
Another opportunity City Council members have been trying to take advantage of is Sound Transit’s offer to contribute millions to the construction of as many as 200 more parking spaces near or in Town Center.
The city’s late-2014 proposal to build new parking spaces on a piece of land most people consider part of Luther Burbank Park was quickly shouted down at an open house and City Council meeting, even though the spaces could have been reserved for Mercer Island residents after at least three years of general public use.
Acker says he wants to see any door making the island a more attractive place to park a car and hop on public transit tightly closed by the time the city approves a revised comprehensive plan this year because commuters should be boarding public transit closer to where they live, not on Mercer Island.
He and other SOS members think Sound Transit’s proposals to have buses drop off commuters on the island so they can transfer to light rail are problematic enough.
But Bassett says the need for more parking is already here. Mercer Island’s 447-space park-and-ride is typically already full by 7:30 a.m. with 65 percent of people driving five miles or less to reach it, according to a Sound Transit study.
Bassett is hopeful there’s plenty of room for negotiation between SOS, the city, developers and Sound Transit over the next few months and years, though. He’s considering increasing developer fees and encouraging developers to add public amenities in exchange for things such as additional stories.
“We knew this was coming because there’s a lot of moving pieces — the Town Center, the bus intercept, I-90 center-lane closures,” Bassett said. “That people get engaged when changes concern them is a good thing, but it can be wild times.”
The city will continue a discussion of just how it wants its Town Center to grow over the next few years at a 7 p.m. public hearing about the building moratorium March 2 at Mercer Island City Hall.
Acker says he and other SOS members are not against growth; he’s just against disorganized and inefficient growth.
“At the end of the day, we’re all people, and we want something to work out.”